Luxury Flights

 

 

Premium travel? Sometimes what you pay for is NOT what you get.

 

I have returned from a travel experience that I know will be of interest to the casual travelers who may someday go for the upgraded experience.

 

First, for those who don’t know me or notice the site where this blog is posted: I am a wine and food professional.  I teach wine, food and service - particularly how to understand and determine quality in service, food and wine. Most of my adventures take me to Europe, which is very different than flying domestically into Portland to visit the Willamette Valley.

 

After years of annual trips to Europe, I finally found flights to and from France that met my needs. Those needs were, of course: departing and arriving airports, a specific date range and Frequent-flier miles to make my first experience with international First and Business Class affordable. Finding the best value can be tedious, but United’s web page design is pretty good (far better than American Airline’s) for locating the best flights easily.

 

SEARCHING

 

A travel tip: Tuesday is the day. Price changes generally happen on Tuesdays and flying on Tuesday (or Wednesday) is usually going to offer the cheapest fares. I always want to get the most out of my perks, so using Miles in the most efficient way means never spending them on anything but First and Business Class. All things being equal, one should conclude that First class is the best value, but after my recent experience -- all things are NOT equal.

 

Generally, the dollars versus miles cost from the US West Coast to Paris or Geneva look like this:

Economy: $1,200 or 60,000 "saver" miles or 130,000 regular miles (miles also have a dollar-cost, range: $5-250)

Business: $4,500 or 115,000 "saver" miles or 300,000 regular miles

First: $9,000 or 160,000 "saver" miles or 340,000 regular miles

 

As you can see the increased cost in dollars is far greater than the increased cost in miles.

 

Among the many other things to consider are:

--Date of flight; destination events such as Le Grands Jours de Bourgogne will not change their dates. I always want to arrive in time to be ready (read: over any possible jet lag) to enjoy my event and any appointments I may set up. This means arriving a least a day or two early.

-- Time of departure and arrival. Arrival time has always been most important to me because of jet lag. Regardless of seating class, I want to arrive in Europe in the morning and get as much sleep as possible during the 7-12 hour flight; that way my mental sleep cycle is already being recalibrated. Tip: Stay awake the night before this flight to ensure you are extra tired.

-- Length of flights and layovers. This is particularly important in the luxury classes. Luxury class tickets include airport lounges. Long layovers provide an opportunity to explore the layover city. On this trip, I considered a layover of 16 hours in Istanbul (arrive at midnight and depart at 16h00). I don’t expect to get many opportunities to see Istanbul…

-- Cost. Saving up to half the cost of normal award fares, “saver” fares are obviously the only way to go. However, these “saver” fares rarely meet the needs of the Friday-to-Sunday flier since these are 4 days that have high demand. There are also monetary costs. My cash cost for my flights were $5.60 to CDG and $188 coming home.

 

Be aware of mixed cabins if you are interested in lounges. Luxury flights include better lounges. In mixed cabin packages the international flight is the highest class with a second and/or third flight in economy. As you will see below, I experienced one of the worst scenarios involving “mixed cabins.”

 

AIRPORTS and FLIGHTS

 

Departing on Friday, 18MAR2016, my first experience traveling Business Class and First Class had eager to experience the lounges and in-flight services provided at this luxury-level of travel.

 

Las Vegas (LAS) Outbound United flight 5924, departing at 08h34.

 

I arrived at LAS at 05h45, about 15 minutes after an email arrived to my phone informing me of a flight delay of 54 minutes. Just enough time to drive back home and back, so no changes in my plan to spend any extra pre-flight time in the Business Class lounge. Upon checking my bags, I was told where to find the lounge without even asking. While this appeared to be excellent service in anticipating my needs, it wouldn’t be.

The lounge refused to allow me to enter at 08h00, because my ticket to Los Angeles was economy. This refusal came after I was informed that my flight was ultimately to be delayed 4 hours. My favorite reason for shunning me entry was that if they allowed me to get in, then they would have to let the whole plane in. This brought these responses:

  1. No, the whole plane does not have a connecting international Business Class ticket.
  2. No, the whole plane isn’t asking.
  3. The ticket agent said I was allowed in.
  4. The gate agent told me that as I had an International Business Class leg, I would be allowed into the Chicago lounge, regardless of the economy class ticket for the first leg.
  5. How much do you think I will eat and drink in your lounge?
  6. I should be in the renowned “best lounge in the Star Alliance network” at LAX, except for United’s delay.

I am very offended that every other United employee I spoke to thought I should be relaxing in the lounge, but the lounge people refused. I really enjoyed walking all over LAS trying to resolve this issue and not getting any breakfast.

 

A final note on the United staff at LAS: When I arrived at CDG, I got another surprise: My luggage was the last off the plane (another 45 minutes lost) because my bags were NOT given “priority” tags. If that is not a standard policy for International Business Class passengers with United, then it should be. I’m not going to waste my time chasing down whether United gives these priority tags for International Business Class.

 

Finally arriving at LAX, I continued to enjoy the same fortune I had already experienced on this trip. The employees at LAX (not United employees) were as informed as the people who vexed me at LAS: they had no idea how to get to the international terminal departing gates or the lounge therein. No signs at the Tom Bradley International Terminal indicated where the departing gates were, let alone the lounge. I, along with another traveler took an unwanted tour of the building, upstairs and down, looking to find the gate entrances or signs directing people to them. When I finally did find the escalators to the departing gates, the gate pass checker was unaware that there was an airline called “SAS” and was alarmed that I might be trying to violate security by using a fictitious airline name. Clever me! After her confusion delayed me further, she called for help.

 

After I was finally released, I made a comment thanking her for another unnecessary delay. I was snapped at by the new helper: “It’s a new airline at this terminal, she didn’t know!” So, I’m the jerk for pointing out a poorly-trained person who has the authority to ruin my trip and who is also a link in the chain of defense that supposedly “keeps us safe.” If this person can’t keep up with the airlines flying out of her terminal, what other areas is she lacking training in?

 

Ultimately, instead of spending 1-2 hours in the LAS lounge and 5 hours in the highly-regarded LAX lounge, I spent 30 minutes in the LAX lounge. I don’t know if the food there was good because it was good, or because I was so hungry at that point that it just seemed like good food.

 

The lounge was roomy, nicely appointed and the buffet offered some appealing food. There was a large bar and there were many attendants scurrying about. I particularly liked the noodle bar that offered wheat and rice noodles, chicken complete with all the condiments/mis en place for a nice bowl of noodle soup: basil, mint, bean sprouts, lime, sriracha, fish sauce, etc.

 

The general buffet offered corned beef and cabbage (St. Patrick’s Day), some salads, cheese and crackers, breads, desserts, fruit and a few other things. All of it appeared fresh and kept up well. There was a nice oak bar that was sparsely stocked with good “call” liquor and several nice wine options. (It’s all free, so one shouldn’t expect 100s of choices!) Because I was rushed at this point, I took no notes.

 

Finally aboard SAS (flight SK 579), my sour trip was completely turned around. In fact, this flight was so great, that I will never think about flying United Global First ever again so long as there are other options like SAS. I have some specific points:

 

Where United Global First is better than SAS Business Class:

  1. The seats are a little wider
  2. There is more seat-accessible “desk” space
  3. There is more seat-accessible storage space

 

Where SAS Business Class is better than United Global First:

  1. Service
  2. Wine Quality
  3. Food Quality
  4. Comfort
  5. Video
  6. Sound
  7. Overall experience
  8. Landing (the SAS touch-down in Stockholm was smooth like Swan Lake!)

 

Detailed comparison of Business Class SAS and United Global First:

Upon entry, an SAS attendant asked if he could help with my carry-on or if I would like him to take my jacket. I was seated less than 1 minute before I was offered a beverage. I was then given a Business Class Menu, detailing drinking and dining options. I understand that this is a brand new Business Class section for SAS and that everything should still be fresh, but the service was as shiny as the new hardware.

 

Perhaps the only flaw in service was the attendant’s lack of knowledge of what she was pouring; she had to check to see what Champagne was being offered. Most importantly, I had a flute of vintage Charles Heidsieck in front of me before I was settled in. Shockingly, United Global First offered me Cava upon entry. This is why I ask before I accept any beverage. If United does not know the difference between Charles Heidsieck and whatever cava they are pouring, then maybe bottle price can quantify it: 2008 Charles Heidsieck retails for well-over $100, most Cava can be easily had for under $10.

 

Eagerly perusing the SAS BC menu, I admired a fine array of food and beverages. The food selection was diverse, considering the needs of international clientele, and the wines were not only recognizable to the average wine lover, but so were many of the producers. I was easily able to mentally select and anticipate an excellent meal matched with very good wines. As coincidence would have it, I would actually meet the woman who chose the wines for SAS; she was at Le Grand Jours de Bougogne. Small world gets smaller: Not only was she at the Grand Jours, her son is an exchange student here in Las Vegas!

 

Vintage Charles Heidsieck, Kloster Eberbach, Massolino, a true Sauternes, Churchill LBV Port and many more wines excelled far beyond the offerings from United Global First: vintage Nicolas Feuillatte (offered only after take-off; retails about $45) Pedroncelli Sauvignon Blanc, Joseph Mellot Pouilly Fume (yes, 2 Sauvignon Blancs); BenMarco Malbec and Lyric (Etude) Pinot. If you can afford United’s first class price, then you probably aren’t choosing to drink any of these wines unless there are no others. Fortunately, stepping back to the United Business Class section halfway home, I found a Nicolas Potel Bourgogne rouge that was worth drinking.

 

The food on SAS was terrific. Brought out by dedicated servers in chef caps, most of the food was plated seat-side. Quality breads and butter came first. The Salmon Gravlax with fennel salad was excellent – especially with the Heidsieck. There is little Norwegian salmon in the US, so I reveled in this dish. Other offerings included a spring salad and sliced beef with fingerling potatoes. I was sorry not to try the Eberbach and the Lafage Cotes du Roussillon blanc, but there was Champagne Charley on board!

 

While I have reservations about using Wagyu for slow-cooked dishes, the brisket was delicious and served with potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms in a merlot demi-glace. I tried both the Massolino Dolcetto and a Chilean Syrah by Luis Filipe Edwards, but I preferred the Massolino as the syrah was a bit over-the-top for my palate. The asparagus was over-cooked (and a wine killer), but everything else was splendid. Other offerings included Shrimp with Bleu cheese Gnocchi, Turkey Roulade with Burgundy sauce and a vegetarian thing.

 

Next, there was a cheese course, which I abstained from, being allergic to “fine” cheeses. Best not to risk it during this fine experience! However, the presentation of three cheeses (plated seat-side again) was every bit as elegant as the rest of the meal. The service was again a picture of quality. I should have inquired about what specific cheeses were being offered for this review (sorry!)

 

Dessert selections were a lemon tart, ice cream or seasonal fruit. I took the tart, since there was Sauternes to pair with it. Lemon is a great foil for the rich sauternes! Looking back, even as a hard-core carnivore, I’d still trade the tart (calorically speaking) for more of that salmon…even over the Wagyu! Illy coffee was available for those who appreciate that quality and aren’t hard set to sleep.

 

Looking at the menu before take-off had me planning to taste most of the adult beverages, but there just wasn’t time (or my own concentration) to do so as I always plan for a serious sleep on this sort of flight (trans-Atlantic, landing in the morning) by staying up the night before. By the time I had finished dinner, I had been awake for 36 hours. There was a buffet available with sandwiches and other things but I never got a chance to check it out.

 

I slept well in the fine nest and woke to a nice breakfast. There was Quiche, yoghurt, fruit and some pastries that were just too much to eat.

 

The seat was very comfortable, though I couldn’t get the massage feature to work. I was only interested in how the quality was (not using it out of need) so I didn’t make much effort, nor did I bother an attendant about it. There were premium linens and a well-designed cockpit around the seat. Even the texture of the materials used to build this haven was considered during construction. I thought the entertainment hardware was excellent.

 

The around-ear noise-cancelling headphones were comfortable and of good quality. The video screen was sharp and the features it offered, including SASTV, were numerous, diverse and interesting. I was very attracted to the mini-documentaries about the new Business Class section. The SASTV wine video discussing the hows and whys of their wine list was obsolete (previous wine list), but it was further proof that SAS understands that wine is important. The Champagne shown in the video was Henriot, another premium luxury Champagne that is far better than Nicolas Feuillatte. I have visited 100 different Champagne houses, including Henriot (those who know, know that this means more than it seems). With respect to Nicolas Feuillatte, Feuillatte is not a house that I have visited nor do I plan to. I don’t find their wines particularly special. Feuillatte is certainly better than cava and most other sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne, but there are 500 other houses I’d rather visit for the first time and 100 I’d rather visit a second, third, fourth or even fifth time.

 

I was disappointed with the lounge in Stockholm. I was hoping for some local cuisine, but the cold buffet was moderately stocked. The option of going into Stockholm by rail for lunch look very expensive and time consuming from my internet research. The train was expensive, the exchange rate was awful and the effort did not seem worth it. I wasn’t eager to go out for a $100 lunch – especially with high expectations for the lounge after the great flight I just had.

 

The SAS flight from Stockholm to CDG was uninspiring -- again, based on what I had just experienced.

 

United Global First was better than economy class, but when comparing price and service to SAS, it just wasn’t anywhere near the same quality. It certainly was not worth 8-10 times the monetary price of economy or even triple the cost in miles (30,000 versus 80,000 miles each way). Just as they offered cava as I boarded, they also served generic coffee that even the attendant remarked was “awful” in a private conversation that had extended to coffee tasting after discussing wine tasting.

 

My return to CDG: Enterprise is now “inspecting” cars on return, so I lost 20 minutes returning my car as I lucky only to wait for one other car inspection. Had I arrive 2 minutes later, I would have been 6th in queue.

 

Inside, CDG was its typical mess. And, as usual, I was given bad directions when I checked my bags: “The lounge is just past the Hermes kiosk that is next to the Chocolatier, before the security x-ray checkpoint.” I found the Hermes kiosk next to the Chocolatier. There was a big sign that said “Luftansa Lounge.”  “Star alliance,” I figured, so I hustled down the people-mover 500 meters to a dead end/security check point. There was a lounge visible past a window, but the only door had a chain and lock wrapped around the door handles.

 

Back to the Hermes kiosk, I see “SAS Lounge” on the other side. Same effort, same result. 20 minutes lost. The only other option was to go through the x-ray checkpoint I was told was past the lounge. I finally found an employee who directed me PAST the security and into the lounge. First Class to the left, Business Class to the right. I enter the room and one attendant is bussing a table; otherwise, I am alone. The attendant pops out twice more, but never greets me or says anything at all.

 

I only had about 15 minutes before boarding, so I only got a very short look. The lounge was nice enough with decent furniture, magazines and newspapers. The self-serve bar had good liquor and decent wine. Moet White Star…Meh. The world’s most popular non-Brut Champagne is not what wine lovers drink. Notre Dame du Quatourze Nautica, Mythique and Kopke Ruby Port are also decent wines, but not outstanding. There was a small cold buffet, juices and coffee, but nothing to write home about.

 

On the way out, I thought to check the Business Class lounge. I was shocked to find that it not only had 50+ people, but a better selection of food. Hot food, too! I stopped by the lounge check-in desk to ask if I was missing something in the First Class lounge, as explained my perceived differences between the two lounges. Two nice ladies were surprised by my assessment but could not come up with any rebuttal. They promised to pass on my comment, but couldn’t tell me why the “lesser” lounge clearly offered more.

 

Getting onboard: As I mentioned previously, the pre-flight bubbly was cava. I don’t drink much when I fly, for many reasons. One reason is that I only drink for the pleasure of the beverage, not to get drunk. This is a long flight and I try to remain awake for the entire trip back so that I can sleep when I get home.

 

Cava is pleasant enough in many situations, but isn’t worth my time in this situation. I also understand that I am perhaps one of few who care or would know the difference. I spent some time chatting with one attendant who was very nice, but one male attendant seemed to always be giving me the “evil eye.” He generally had nothing to say, never smiling; he was just kind of creepy.

 

Further issues in service during pre-flight were that the crew had other things to do rather than greet me, offer help with my bag or to take my coat as I experienced on SAS. Someone did offer to hang my jacket, but that was 15 minutes after boarding.

 

The video screen was at a terrible distance for my eyes. Although it is a larger screen than the one on the SAS A-330, it is well out of reach and requires a remote control (which is at-hand). Too far without glasses, too close with. My eyes could not focus on the text on the screen without leaning far forward, with or without my glasses. It really wasn’t that big of a deal for watching movies, as I only watched movies I have previously seen, but it kept me from exploring.

 

As I have already mentioned my disappointment with the wines, I was also underwhelmed with the food: Having attended too many poorly-catered events, I am reminded of how poor the quality of catered food can be as I sampled the “best” of what United has to offer. Note to all: Steaks don’t hold well. Actually, that’s not right: If “well” is how you like your steak, then this was fine.

 

An amuse of chicken skewer on Tabouleh was bland as was the coriander sauce with it. Zucchini does not make interesting soup, especially when the Parmesan used to give it a kick is indiscernible. The fresh greens were both fresh and green, and the creamy tropical fruit dressing was sweet and mild, but not as tangy as I would hope. The tomato and Kalamata olive included were not significant in quality.

 

I chose the Strip steak over the other options, because the Tandoori Chicken breast will be dry, I have shrimp and vegetarian allergies (Indian-spiced shrimp and Vegetarian Pici (pasta)). The Steak was of good quality; I know this because a cheap steak is garbage when served well. This was still edible, but what a waste. I found out later that the lead attendant “keeps her ovens very hot” when talking about the food later in the flight with an attendant. I must assume that there is only moderate training on food and most of that training is focused on safe food handling – not quality food keeping.

 

United also offered cheese and dessert. The cheese was pre-plated and I passed; there was no choice on dessert. Ice cream (Ice milk? Soft-serve quality, either way) with several toppings available, but my requested banana had to be gotten from the galley. As a whole, my interest in food and wine on this flight was dead. I was stretching my legs when I noticed that the rear galley had a bottle of Burgundy. Nicolas Potel! It’s only Bourgogne Rouge but it was the best wine on the plane.

 

Unfortunately, I started feeling a cold coming on as I drove to CDG the day before; I was dragging at this point, so further flight details are lost. With a 7-hour layover at SFO, I had originally planned to get some dim sum in Chinatown, but I was really too tired at this point.

 

My arrival to SFO woke me up and made me forget the disappointment of that flight. First there was more aggravation: there was no clear directions or signs to the lounges. The directions I was given was to a lounge that was not the top lounge I would later find. The lounge in the main terminal was nearly unremarkable with some self-serve simple snack and bevvies, though it had a nice bar. The only hot food was a great-smelling mushroom soup that failed on the palate. I moped around inside this lounge for a couple hours nursing several glasses of refreshing guava juice. Having to listen to CNN cover “breaking” news by repeating the same 10 sentences over and over for 2 hours was agony. They finally posted the gate number I was leaving from, so I asked how far the gate was and if there was another lounge. I was then enlightened about the true First Class lounge that was in the International Terminal, which is oddly where the gate for my SFO to LAS leg is located. FINALLY. It’s a shame there isn’t a sign or some other notification for First Class ticket holders!

 

Finally, a lounge I can appreciate while I wait the final 4 hours (total of almost 8 because of another delay) for my flight home. Ruinart Champagne! Smoked duck breast. Cold, poached salmon. The sun shines again! Other selections included mediocre sushi, nice-looking sandwiches, cold cocktail shrimp, and a few other things in an overall nice cold buffet. It’s just my luck that I find the best lounge after being awake for 28 hours -- and 40 hours into a cold. While there is no hot food, this selection of cold food was terrific for my tastes.

 

There were 2 Pinot Noirs available and I chose the Mark West over the other because I knew the other was not very good. Pinot and duck is a favorite, but this Mark West wasn’t Burgundy, Willamette or anything close to either. I quickly switched to the Ruinart. The smoked duck, poached salmon and Ruinart were certainly memorable, despite my exhaustion.

 

I don’t know what absurdity caused my departing flight from LAS to be delayed (4 times!), but wicked winds at LAS supposedly made life tough for the LAS tower. I arrived at LAS late enough to destroy my well-coordinated pick-up.

 

Another adventure has ended, but I am better prepared for the next!

 

Bottom line: SAS Business Class was by far the best flying experience of my life. SAS met every expectation I had. Sadly, my experience with United Global First was an utter disappointment. 

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